Posted: Sep 14, 2016
Historic Architecture meets Green Technologies
812 Windsor Lane

There is no denying, the architecture of the Old Town area of Key West is singular to this 190+ year old town.  Some grand homes were built in the Bahamas in the early 1800's, dismantled, shipped to Key West and reconstructed.  Many other homes date to the late 1800's. Nearly all of the Meadows was built in the early 1900's when Henry Flager brought his overseas railroad to the now historic seaport area. Yet preservation of these many fine homes was not easy. Continuing today, incorporating advances in energy efficiency and safety requires a delicate and resolute balance.  How are two Key West authorities that oversee these balances, HARC and FIRM, coordinating these efforts?


As I first wrote in How does Key West preserve its Historic Architecture, preservation of Key West's historic homes and neighborhoods did not begin in earnest until the early 1960's. As a result of this effort, the City of Key West was given the authority to create an architectural review board. By 1986 this board had evolved to and was renamed the Historic Architecture Review Commission (HARC). HARC continues to this day and has a major role in maintaining the formal and informal architectural integity of new construction and re-construction in the Old Town area of Key West. 

1019 Whitehead Street


Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe County, better known as FIRM, was born in February 2006.  FIRM was and remains a group of community activists dedicated to ensuring that windstorm insurance rates for Monroe County are neither excessive, discriminatory, nor unaffordable. In fact, from the small kernel of 32 original members, FIRM's voice of now 3000 members is heard statewide.  FIRM is a leading voice in developing underwriting policies, commensurate insurance rates and, for this article, strives to incorporate the latest in wind resistant technolgies into Key West's historic structures.


Between HARC and FIRM then is the dual task of;

  1. Maintaining the architectural integrity that attracts so many people to Key West, and
  2. Incorporating the latest in insurance rate reducing technology that increases safety, structural integrity and saves money.

What's new from HARC?

1408 Petronia Street


HARC has recently completed a review of the guidelines for new structures and additions.   These are in the process of being adopted by the City Commission and the State.   These changes followed a series of controversial developments approved by HARC during 2015 which gave consent for some strident modern structures to be built.   This happened because prior Historic Architecture Guidelines followed the Secretary of Interiors Standards which promotes each property to be a record of its time, place and use.


The main changes within the revisions address how new development and additions must be compatible with the size, scale, color, texture, material and character of the district, sub-area or block and designed so that when completed the urban context will not be jarred by the look of the new property or addition.

1309 Newton Street


The new "Structure" section introduces 25 new standards and those covering "Additions" contain 32 new guidelines.    At the end of both sections there are very useful test questions that owners can apply to understand whether the proposals they have in mind are likely to secure consent.


For additions, some of these questions are:


  1. Is the proposed addition the only and last resource on the site to accommodate the minimal space for the new proposed use?
  2. Does the proposed addition require minimal destruction and or obstruction of character-defining elements of the existing building?
  3. Is the new addition differentiated from the existing building and does not read as part of the original structure and does not mimic existing elevations?
  4. Is the proposed addition not visible from any streets or lane and located in the least conspicuous side of an existing building?
  5. Is the proposed addition designed in a manner that if removed in the future, the essence and character defining features of the original building are not disguised?
  6. Is the new proposed addition compatible with the scale, massing, proportions and height of the original building and surrounding structures?
  7. Does the introduction of the proposed addition still preserve the original building’s form and proportions?
  8. Is the new addition subordinated to the original building? Do the selected materials, textures and colors outcast the original building and adjacent structures?
  9. Does the new addition respect and preserve the original building form, including but not limited to rooflines, walls and protruded architectural elements?
  10. Does the new addition not drastically change the original building and its site and does not overpower the original building and any adjacent structures?

How are FIRM standards being incorporated?

1200 Florida Street

HARC supports the introduction of new and emerging technology for renewable energy and seeks to achieve this by promoting the least visual impact to buildings and streetscapes.  It is now permissible to coat roofs with solar reflective paint and to install solar panels based on a hierarchy of preferred locations starting with roofing not visible from public streets.

HARC is turning its attention to the work undertaken by FIRM and is looking at replacement windows and other measures needed to secure insurance mitigation credits – which are needed to obtain the best priced windstorm insurance coverage.  Already, it is possible to use metal impact resistant windows on non-contributing structures or portions of contributing structures.  


The challenge now is to find a way to install impact resistant windows on contributing buildings without changing the appearance of the property. Recent developments in metal window manufacturing have made significant headway and HARC is currently looking at a timber double glazed impact window product that is looking very promising.


Blending the modern with the old requires a deft and caring hand.  Add to that the intrinsic and actual value of Key West real estate plus the task of having to satisfy all of the people all of the time and you can see that HARC and FIRM have a difficult yet rewarding task on their hands.


I am encouraged by and would like to thank the President of HARC, Bryan Green and the Vice President of FIRM, Steve Russ, for helping me write this artice.  Best of luck to you and to your fine staffs.


If you have any comments or questons, please feel free to contact me here.


Good luck!


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